Ezekiel Elliott is Primed For Success in Dallas

There is no such thing as a “generational talent” at running back.

Perhaps I’m being shortsighted, but a “generational” event infers that it happens so infrequently, that it only happens once every 20-35 years.

Reggie Bush was a “can’t miss” prospect in 2006. Adrian Peterson was considered a “generational talent” literally one year later. Darren McFadden got the same treatment one year after Peterson. We had to wait a few more years, but then we finally got another “generational” back in 2012 with Trent Richardson. Three years after Richardson, Todd Gurley was hailed as “the most talented player in the 2015 draft“.

All of this is to say: Ezekiel Elliott is a very good running back capable of dominating at the NFL level. Perhaps you will be further convinced of that after reading this article.

But, as a football community, let’s stop acting as if these very talented running backs don’t come around often. They do. In fact, by my math, we get a “generational” talent at running back a little more than once every two years in the NFL. And Ezekiel Elliott is one of them.

On to the fun stuff.

The economics of drafting a running back in the first round aside, there is no denying the Dallas Cowboys desperately want to pound the rock behind their stellar offensive line. The Cowboys’ line has ranked 6th, 1st and 4th in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Line Yards metric in the past three seasons and have fostered 9th and 2nd place finishes in total team rushing yards in the past two years.

We know the draft capital that was spent. We know the hype is in place. We know that Dallas sets up well to have an incredible running game. What does the Yards Created data say about “Zeke”?

Note: If this is your first time reading Yards Created, please check out the introductory piece where I lay out the entire process in detail here.

Games Sampled 

Gm Att ruYds ruTDs Rec ReYds reTDs
VT 11 122 1 2 16 0
PSU 27 153 1 4 21 0
Mich. 30 214 2 2 7 0
ND 27 149 4 1 30 0
Mary 21 106 2 6 47 0

I grant you that there aren’t really any “bad games” in Elliott’s Yards Created sample. It wasn’t for a lack of trying to find holes in Elliott’s game log. In 2015, he became the eighth player since 2000 to have 12 or more games of 100+ yards rushing and became one of five running backs since 2000 to have 10 games with 100+ yards rushing, one rushing touchdown and at least one reception in a single season.

Elliott’s final season production is actually probably better than most are selling.

Ohio State’s Yards Blocked and Ezekiel Elliott’s Yards Created

Per Att. Data Yards Blocked/Att. Yards Created/Att.
Total Attempts: 108 1.34 5.98

Let’s take a step back here.

For all the glory Elliott deservedly gets, Ohio State had one of the best offensive lines in college football in 2015. They ranked seventh (of 128 programs) in Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards and — of the running backs I have completed for Yards Created — have the best average Yards Blocked per attempt in the 2016 class.

In the same vein, Elliott’s Yards Created per attempt numbers are lightyears above the 2016 class. How good are they? Here’s a breakdown of every running back I have completed so far (note: Kenyan Drake‘s sample was only 37 carries large):

Name YC/Att.
Kenyan Drake* 6.11
Ezekiel Elliott 5.98
C.J. Prosise 4.90
Paul Perkins 4.61
Devontae Booker 4.43
Kenneth Dixon 4.14
Derrick Henry 4.02

Excluding Kenyan Drake, Elliott’s 5.98 Yards Created per attempt is a full yard more than the next closest running back in the 2016 draft class. That speaks for itself about the breed of player Elliott is — even against the backdrop of this year’s average rookie running back class.

Run Type Data

Inside% Outside% Counter% Toss% Other%
79.63% 14.81% 0.93% 2.78% 1.85%

And here are the Buckeyes’ formation type on Elliott’s rush attempts:

Shotgun/Pistol Under Center
100.0% 0.0%

Ohio State’s spread offense predicates on inside zone concepts that play perfectly to the tune of Elliott’s aggressive running style.

Per NFLSavant, 37.4% of Dallas’ runs over the past two seasons went either up the middle or behind the left or right guard and the remaining 62.6% went off-tackle or off-end.

While Elliott is accustomed to inside-zone at Ohio State, he created a preposterous 7.63 yards per attempt on his 16 charted outside runs. That is the best yards created per outside attempt in the class to-date. Elliott’s 5.98 yards created on his 86 charted inside runs was also the best in the class.

Whether Dallas continues running off-tackle consistently (namely the left side of the offensive line), Elliott demonstrated simply unmatched ability to create on his own behind a powerful offensive at Ohio State.

Missed Tackles Forced (Rushing)

MT Power/Att. MT Elusiveness/Att. MT Speed/Att.
0.15 0.14 0.09

And here are Ezekiel Elliott’s missed tackles forced on a per target and per opportunity (targets plus carries) basis:

Missed Tackles Forced (Receiving) and Missed Tackles Forced Per Opportunity

MT Power/Tgt MT Elusive/Tgt MT Speed/Tgt MT/Opp.
0.07 0.20 0.00 0.366

Ezekiel Elliott might not have the extreme elusiveness of Kenneth Dixon but his 93rd percentile weight adjusted Speed Score gives him massive strength on his 225lbs frame. However, his vertical (22nd percentile) and broad (48th percentile) jumps from the NFL Combine leave a bit to be desired.

If anything, Elliott’s burst score (weighted vertical and broad jumps) is his lone attribute that isn’t above average. I’m not willing to completely cast it off completely, but his stellar weight-adjusted speed and ability to create yards on his own shrugs aside any combine related burst concerns.

Route/Target Data plus Average Depth of Target

Routes/G Targets/G aDOT
4.60 3.00 -1.36

Here is where Elliott ran his routes from:

Backfield Route% Split Wide%
91.30% 8.70%

Objectively, Elliott did not put up massive numbers as a receiving back at Ohio State but his somewhat limited sample of routes and targets per-game points to a running back that must only be described as superb:

Route Type

Route Occurrences
Check/Release 21.7%
Flat 47.8%
Curl 13.0%
Swing 17.4%

Of the seven completed Yards Created samples in the 2016 class to-date, Elliott (5.26) finished just behind Kenyan Drake (5.74) and Kenneth Dixon (5.36) in yards gained per pass route.

Again, his 2.1 receptions and 15.8 receiving yards per-game is directly tethered to seeing just 3 targets per-game (on 4.6 routes) — but he did have at least one reception all but two of the Buckeyes’ 13 games in 2015.

The floor as a receiver is clear and Elliott should be more than able to handle Dallas’ passing game work early on. It’s worth noting that in the last two seasons Tony Romo played 15 or more games (2013 and 2014), DeMarco Murray averaged 4.36 targets per-game as a member of the Cowboys.

Pass Protection

Pass Pro Att. Pass Pro Execution %
17 94.12%

During the early stages of this Yards Created project, I have noticed that the main weakness of nearly every running back coming out of college and transitioning into the NFL is in pass protection.

Except for Ezekiel Elliott.

On his 17 charted pass protection attempts, Elliott allowed just one quarterback pressure/hurry. The 2016 class average to-date among completed Yards Created samples is 76.3% and the next closest back in pass protection execution percentage (PPE%) is Devontae Booker (85.7%). No other back besides Elliott and Booker have PPE percentages above 75%.

Conclusion

Outside of slightly below average jumping ability, I struggle to find any warts in Elliott’s overall game. He has uncanny ability to create yards on his own paired with elite field-vision to read blocks and generate extra yardage off of them. In terms of team fit, Elliott’s match in Dallas is unparalleled.

In this running back class, each player has their own set of unique issues, sans Elliott. No prospect is a proverbial unicorn, but granted everything goes well in his development this summer and in OTAs the sky for the soon-to-be 21-year-old is limitless in Dallas.

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